New research draws a direct climate link between farm worker safety, global economic impacts and the ability to feed people.
Germany worries about its wheat, France tries to protect its grapes, and the United States and Canada calculate the agribusiness loss in apples or blueberries when extreme weather, like this week’s unprecedented North American heat wave, wreaks havoc. Yet there’s another climate-related loss to agriculture: farm workers.
One of them died in the Pacific Northwest on Saturday, as U.S. states like Oregon and Washington – along with neighboring Canada’s British Columbia province – saw temperatures soar as high as 49.6°C. The Oregon agency responsible for workplace safety confirmed it was investigating the death of a man who collapsed while laying out irrigation lines as temperatures at the time climbed to 40°C.
United Farm Workers, the lead labor organization for migrant farm workers in the United States, noted that the agricultural industry and the media especially focused on risks to Washington state’s cherry crop, which was in full harvest. This year’s yield was forecast at 23.8 million 20-pound boxes and stories about how fruit growers were racing to protect the crop were common, but far less so when it comes to the people picking those cherries.
“The harvest workers are never mentioned in this article, but our thoughts and prayers are with the fruit at risk,” said the UFW in a pointed social media post. The labor organization, launched by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta nearly 60 years ago, has appealed for critical protections and sought to make workers more visible.
In many cases, even elders and children as young as 12 are out working in the unprecedented heat. Employers aren’t always required to provide shaded shelters, rest breaks or drinking water, although some have moved work hours into the night so that the harvest can continue.
“I was off today so I was helping distribute water and information to the cherry harvesters,” said Martha Acevedo, a wine grape worker from Sunnyside, Washington, on Wednesday. “They were struggling. No shade, not even cold water. I’m afraid people will die. This is beyond hot weather. This is an emergency.”
And climate change is making it worse, whether the workers are in the U.S. or Germany or Spain. The heat exposure poses immediate risks but it also may contribute to more chronic conditions including renal failure. Farm workers also deal with chemical exposure, allergies from airborne irritants and increasing disease threats.
Much research on climate change and the global food supply offers ominous warnings about diminished yields, biodiversity and potentially unlivable farming regions in the future. It rarely makes the connection to the workers themselves, but one recent study draws a direct link between farm workers’ ability to safely do their jobs and the availability of the very crops that feed people.
“The interaction between the two have received little attention,” said the research authors, whose work was published by Environmental Research Letters in March. “The environmental heat exposure level determines how many hours workers are capable to develop their activities. A restricted labor capacity will result in lower wages and output in economic activities, especially agriculture.”
The “People and Plants” calculations suggest the most significant agricultural impacts are in Africa and Southeast Asia, where even more farm workers will be needed to offset labor impacts driven by climate change.
“In those regions, heat stress with 3C global warming could reduce labor capacity in agriculture by 30 to 50 percent, increasing food prices and requiring much higher levels of employment in the farm sector,” the authors warn. “The global welfare loss at this level of warming could reach US$136 billion, with crop prices rising by 5 percent relative to baseline.”
In other words, it’s not just that plants are stressed by the heat. It’s the people too, and everyone has a stake in finding ways to protect farm workers from climate change impacts.